Political Tensions Could Ratchet Up Threat Levels as We Return to Work. What Employers Need to Know

As employees emerge from isolation and return to their work environments, the risk of workplace violence is one to consider. Here's how employers should respond to ensure a safe workplace for their employees. 
By: | July 5, 2021

The pandemic created a world none of us had ever experienced before. Long bouts of isolation, loss of income and human connections and long-term uncertainty left many with a constant feeling of unease.

The natural stressors of COVID-19 were coupled with the politicization of mask wearing, which created sharper divisions among people with different viewpoints. Suddenly, people became accustomed to making judgments about a person’s overall beliefs with what was, or wasn’t, covering their nose and mouth.

As we continue to near a semblance of normalcy post-pandemic, companies and their employees who have spent the last 18 months working from home are gearing up for a modified return to the office. But, employees are entering a workforce that could potentially serve as the setting for heated disagreements.

The forced time away has enabled people to return to the office with perhaps a more deeply entrenched and inflexible belief system.

“As folks are returning to the office, they’re perhaps seeing things through a new viewpoint. They’ve gained insights into themselves and sensibilities that they may have not had before,” said Matt Zender, senior vice president of workers’ comp strategy at AmTrust Financial Services.

With this looming possibility of tension and conflict, employers need to not only recognize the potential of violence at their worksites but also what they can do to prepare and respond to the risk.

The Roots of Potential Violence

It’s easy to pinpoint the factors contributing to today’s potentially violent work environment.

As cases across the country continue to decline, many find themselves in a “period of re-entry,” as Zender called it. This re-entry, though enabling us to return to a sense of life pre-pandemic, will never be as it once was. Re-entry is expected to present its challenges for employees.

Matthew Zender, senior vice president, workers’ comp strategy, AmTrust Financial Services

“There’s a lot of information people must process that they really haven’t received all the proper equipment to do so — through no fault of the employer,” Zender said.

“We as humans are dealing with events and situations that we have never dealt with before.”

Dan Linskey, managing director in the security risk management practice at Kroll, also discussed the impact political division has had and will continue to have on a healthy workplace environment.

“The last four years in U.S. politics has been incredibly divided. People are split down the middle in their opinions, and it’s become common to dismiss the other side’s thoughts and ideas as not being appropriate.”

He continued, “Those tensions have played out in the workplace as well. If you took a position that some of your colleagues don’t agree with, it’s almost as if it’s a personal front rather than just a difference of opinion.”

Though it’s not the first time the U.S. has experienced a polarizing political climate, the ever-present, all-knowing capabilities of social media have magnified the divide.

“We’ve never had so much communication in the past as we do now,” said Jeff Corder, vice president of loss control, AmTrust Financial Services.

“Everybody sees everything, which heightens peoples’ perspective. Depending on whichever side of the spectrum you’re on, you’re more likely going to be paying attention to the opinion that resonates with yours. That plays a part in the increase of polarization.”

Corder discussed the differences between Democratic and Republican stances on the main issues, which is currently set at a 66% gap. While he believes this number will decrease over time, Corder pointed to the rapid-fire pace of the information we ingest to the stark contrast in opinions.

And while we are certainly living through a polarized political period in the U.S., Zender doesn’t believe it’s a particularly unique circumstance. Rather, how people are responding is what makes this period stand out.

The Importance of Employer Response

The stressors of the last 18 months are easily identified and cannot be ignored by employers as returns to the workplace ramp up.

“Employers have to be mindful of the challenges that have gone on in the past 18 months — politically, societally and economically — and we need to make sure we set the necessary policies and procedures,” Linskey said.

Jeff Corder, vice president, loss control, AmTrust Financial Services

An example would be an HR department’s ability to monitor employee mental health. Linskey stated that this was a challenge for HR departments prior to the pandemic and will continue to be a challenge as many people experienced mental health crises in the last year.

“Having an HR program monitoring for circumstances that can be concerning is necessary, followed by some action, whether that’s getting them peer counseling, engaging a family member to let them know about concerns at work,” he said.

While the HR department is a valuable and necessary tool in eliminating the risk of workplace violence, Linskey said it should be the last stop in terms of response to a violence threat. Rather, he stressed the best thing employers can do is to actively engage with employees to create an environment where expressing concern is appreciated.

Employees also need an environment where they feel comfortable in confiding in someone within the workplace, especially if they have concerns about themselves or relationships with a colleague.

Most importantly, employees need to know that “those types of options are available without a fear of repercussion,” Corder said.

Zender added that ultimately, an employer must reflect concern and demonstrate an ability to listen. He likened this period to another in American history that sparked division: the OJ Simpson trial.

“I knew people were polarized on both sides about how they felt about that issue, and I sat down with my staff and I explained what my expectations were,” he said.

“I understood and had compassion for people on both sides of the event and wanted them, as they were demonstrating their reactions to the verdict, [to] think about the people who had the opposite opinion and how they might feel if the roles were reversed.”

By employers reacting and acting in a way that promotes non-confrontational discussion, it enables employees to understand what is expected of them, thus forcing them to “think twice before they react in a certain manner,” as Zender said.

Employers also need to ensure their employees are trained in not only identifying an escalating situation but also on how to respond and diffuse it as well. With high tensions and polar opposite viewpoints, training for employees on how to remove themselves from a conflict is vital.

Dan Linskey, managing director, security risk management, Kroll

“That type of training cannot be underestimated. Having protocols on maintaining the money in the safe is as important as protocols on what the employee should do when they realize a patron is about to do some harm,” Zender said.

Corder also emphasized the availability of free online resources provided by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and OSHA that particularly address the risks of workplace violence and how to appropriately respond.

Embracing Re-entry

What can employees expect as they embark on this period of re-entry?

While it is unclear how long re-entry will last, the need for employee preparedness when it comes to violence is that much more important.

Collectively, we have all experienced a slew of stressful events. Corder believes one component will be integral to the promotion of a healthy work environment: awareness.

“Employees should expect that every other employee has their own individual stressors and to be cognizant of that. That awareness will go a long way,” he said. &

Emma Brenner is a staff writer with Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected].

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